Eight p.m. is the Urban Lounge’s new early opening time, and as one of the people who was against it when they asked for comments on Facebook, I’ve come around a bit—if the venue is just one stop on an evening of drinking, the evening isn’t as wasted as your hearing might be upon your exit. It’s a Sunday night, the evening most of us dread facing an upcoming work week, but also a last chance to rock out, a last stab at a pretense of independence from the working grind. Arriving early, I grab a beer before the bands. There’s only one other guy in the place besides me without a beard. People are such sheep.
Local openers Baby Gurl have toured not just locally, including Crucialfest 3, but regionally, and released an album, A Name And a Blessing (recorded, mixed and mastered by Andy Patterson, so you know, if nothing else, it’ll give your sound system a workout), earlier this year. The two-piece guitar/drum duo of Chris Wadsworth and Jordan Fairbanks reminds me of C Average with the heavier-than-thou riffage let loose when they commence, but the vocals are a little more in the vein of Killdozer. A song about Utah County in which they shout “Happy!” over and over is the most obvious satirical move. Then, some funk metal. The guitarist starts dicking around with the keyboard, trading rhythmic riffs with the drummer, and they are acting like even bigger sophomoric jerk-offs than I thought at first—dudes, save it for band practice. Though it would make slightly more sense in light of the opener’s preference for musical toys. Wadsworth and Fairbanks are skilled players with some creative ideas that they barely began to explore in their 30-minute set, but sometimes these ideas get drowned out by their less interesting ones. At least they end on a strong note with a searing punk number.
Seattle band Kinski has attained semi-legendary status, pushing a decade-and-a-half, founded in 1998. Like the late, great actor, this four-piece is prone to inchoate, incendiary outbursts. Categories are only so valuable, but it’s hard to know how to describe this band, as it is headliner Melt-Banana. Post-rock, math rock (in places)—so many of the modifiers to “rock” only seem to signify “pseudo,” or not really rock, or diluted, somehow. Here’s a band that has opened for Oneida, Acid Mothers Temple and Tool, to murk up the waters even further. Matthew Reid Schwartz, alternating between guitar and flute, doesn’t exactly help their case—visually, at least. I have to admit I’d never heard them before, so I came in open-minded, just to listen and see what they were doing, to see what seemed to strike a chord with hometown label Sub Pop, and on their newest release, Cozy Moments, a switch to the Kill Rock Stars label. They start off slow, raising the tempo and dynamic level gradually. With flute riffs denatured by delay pedal and bassist Lucy Atkinson using a bow at times—a nice touch that along with the flute—they recall ‘70s prog and art rock. These instrumental jams give way to some elemental Wire-like three-chord workouts, with (finally) some vocals added to the mix, which serves to denote “rock n’ roll.” They really rock hard on some of these songs, with some monumental guitar riffs that don’t need vocals to convey their energy and the “rock.” It takes some stones to name your band after one of the most badass actors who ever lived. After they put away the flute and the noodley shit, Kinski is pretty damn punk.
So what is punk anyway? I saw a number of youth (I can use that term, being an old fart) with punk jackets and accouterments, especially excited for the arrival of Melt-Banana on stage. These kids should know, if anybody does. But if punk as a style, an attitude and sound has been co-opted by mall stores and mainstream bands and brands, how do you rebel in an authentic way? Is there any access to that sublime mixture of anger, wicked humor and do-it-yourself creative spirit that is punk rock? The spirit that magazines like SLUG were founded on, and seems pretty damn hard to find anymore.
Melt-Banana’s stage setup, including a table with a MacBook and a Wi-Fi router, seems like the antithesis of punk at first. But it’s what you do with it that counts. This band has been together over twenty years, a span over which a band has got to either stagnate or evolve. Their 10th album, fetch, (A-Zap Records) was interrupted by the Fukushima earthquake in 2011. The demos had been recorded, but they returned to working on it with the need to re-ground themselves in nature, and the album includes sounds of waves, frogs, insects and birds. It seems like the most unlikely descriptor, but there is a kind of organic quality to their sound, that you wouldn’t guess from the staging, which doesn’t even include a live drummer, and vocalist Yasuko Onuki wielding what looks like some kind of video game controller, with multi-colored lights. Her vocals, rapidly clipped phrases in English, are strangely birdlike, but also often more like commands than lyrics.
Japanese music often seems like cartoonish or extreme versions of genres—whether the naive pop punk of Shonen Knife or the overblown psychedelia of Acid Mothers Temple. Melt-Banana uses technology, from guitar effects to synthesized drum tracks, in such a way that you aren’t aware of it as technology. Rock n’ roll was originally a live medium, and Onuki’s stage presence is riveting as she wields the game controller, using it to control the frenetic rhythms of the music, as stage prop, as mere toy, or all three? This is the music of the future, I thought as I watched her—technology becoming part of the body, almost. The guitar playing of Ichirou Agata fuels their sound rather than just playing along with the tracks. The combination of all these elements creates a unified sound that I’m convinced would be as compelling slowed down, like playing vinyl albums at the wrong speed. I’ll bet it would still work, still touch a nerve. Fetch is a litany of deception, and even though on “Zero,” the album’s closer, there’s the bitter admonition “Every piece of the sweet past I bury,” the tune ends on “Every piece of land/it’s in twilight/it is my land/it is my real,” which is the kind of reclamation of place and identity, of reality itself, that if you’re lucky can occur after a disaster like Fukushima—but also the reclamation of self that punk rock is supposed to be all about.